1. New York Rangers (46-18-7; last week-1) – The Rangers, Canadiens and Ducks all have 99 points (most in the NHL) but New York put itself ahead of the other two clubs by crushing Anaheim, 7-2, on Sunday. The Rangers have also played two less games than the Canadiens and Ducks while putting together the best goal-differential (plus-54) in the league. The only question with New York remains who is their starting goaltender in the playoffs? Cam Talbot (19-7-4, 2.13 goals against average, .929 save percentage, 5 shutouts) or Henrik Lundqvist (25-11-3, 2.25 goals against average, .922 save percentage, 5 shutouts)?
2. Montreal Canadiens (46-20-7; last week-4) – The race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, not to mention the Atlantic Division crown looks destined to go down to the last day of the regular season (April 11). Montreal has won its last three games but it can’t really shake Tampa Bay, which still trails the Habs by only two points and is 4-0 against them. Thanks to Carey Price’s career year (40-15-4, 1.86 goals against average, .938 save percentage, 9 shutouts), the Canadiens have allowed an NHL-low 159 goals this season.
3. St. Louis Blues (45-21-7; last week-2) – Anaheim might have two more points (in one more game) than St. Louis but after that horrific loss at New York, I think there is little doubt who the best team in the Western Conference is. The Blues have scored the most goals (223) in the West and they own the best goal-differential (plus-43) in the superior conference. Sunday’s 2-1 overtime loss to Detroit was extra bitter for St. Louis since Justin Abdelkader scored with a broken stick (something which is illegal but somehow not reviewable).
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (45-21-7; last week-5) – With only nine games left in the regular season, the Lightning are peaking at the right time. Captain Steven Stamkos dropped the gloves for only the second time in his career as Tampa Bay beat the reeling Bruins, 5-3, on Sunday. Goaltender Ben Bishop (36-11-4, 2.31 goals against average, .916 save percentage, 3 shutouts) earned the third star of the week in the NHL.
5. Anaheim Ducks (46-21-7; last week-3) – This might seem harsh but it’s hard to take Anaheim seriously as the top overall team since its goal-differential is a pedestrian plus-10. The Ducks’ five-game road trip couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start than it did in New York but I expect them to bounce back on Tuesday in Columbus. Thursday’s game at Boston and Saturday’s game at the Islanders are more intriguing tests for a great road team (21-11-4).
6. Nashville Predators (44-21-8; last week-6) – The Predators aren’t out of the woods just yet (3-6-1 in last 10 games) but maybe their 3-0 win over Buffalo on Saturday will help to turn things around. The schedule doesn’t let up with their next five games against playoff teams (Canadiens, Lightning, Capitals, Flames and Canucks). Through this turbulent time, the Predators still only trail the Blues by one point for first-place in the Central Division.
7. Chicago Blackhawks (43-22-6; last week-7) – The Blackhawks were one of the hottest teams in the NHL then they no-showed in Dallas on Saturday (4-0 loss). Chicago’s next three games (Hurricanes, Flyers, Blue Jackets) are against non-playoff teams so they should roll. The Predators are four points ahead of the Blackhawks but Chicago has two games in hand.
8. New York Islanders (44-25-4; last week-7) – For the Islanders, dreams of a Metropolitan Division title are all but gone thanks to the Rangers. Now, the Isles are just trying to hang onto home ice as Pittsburgh is only two points behind them for fourth-place in the Eastern Conference. The Islanders have four tough games this week at Nassau Coliseum: vs. Wild, Kings, Ducks and Red Wings.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-22-10; last week-9) – With Evgeni Malkin (28 goals, 40 assists) missing the past four games and Patric Hornqvist (23 goals, 22 assists) out since March 15, the Penguins are hanging on for dear life. Pittsburgh hosts St. Louis on Tuesday in a huge game before six straight against non-playoff teams. The Red Wings are only one point behind the fifth-place Penguins, with one game in hand.
10. Detroit Red Wings (39-21-11; last week-10) – Detroit is still not right (4-6-0 in last 10 games) but Sunday’s 2-1 overtime win vs. St. Louis was a great win. The Red Wings are tough to beat at Joe Louis Arena (20-7-7) and their next three games are there: Coyotes, Sharks and Lightning. There is no time to waste with Washington one point behind them (albeit with two games in hand).
11. Minnesota Wild (40-25-7; last week-11) – In the second half of the season, has there been a more consistent team in the West than Minnesota? The Wild are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games and a 6-3 win over St. Louis on Saturday was mighty impressive. Something to watch: Minnesota's final nine games are against playoff teams.
12. Washington Capitals (39-24-10; last week-12) – With Boston’s death spiral, Washington looks temporarily safe from the B's but they are still only four points ahead if the Bruins wake up in the last nine games. The Capitals looked out of gas in Saturday’s 3-0 loss at Winnipeg. Now they are off until Thursday when they host the Devils.
13. Vancouver Canucks (42-26-4; last week-14) – They have gotten no attention all season but the Canucks have played well. Vancouver is 6-3-1 in its last 10 games. The Canucks are at Rogers Arena this week for three games against Western Conference teams: Jets, Avalanche and Stars.
14. Winnipeg Jets (37-23-12; last week-14) – Winnipeg has won four straight games but it is still only two points ahead of eighth-place Calgary and four points ahead of ninth-place Los Angeles. The Jets are at the Oilers on Monday, a must-win before they go to Vancouver and host Montreal then Chicago to close out the week. It might not last for long but goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is playing the best hockey of his life, earning him the first star of the week in the NHL.
15. Ottawa Senators (36-24-11; last week-18) – Let’s be honest: nobody outside of Ottawa saw this run from the Senators coming. Ottawa has won six games in a row to pull within one point of lifeless Boston with two games in hand. Center Kyle Turris (21 goals, 31 assists) had four goals and two assists last week to earn the No. 2 star of the week in the NHL.
16. Calgary Flames (39-27-6; last week-15) – The 3-2 overtime loss to Columbus on Saturday was tough but Calgary is still 6-2-2 in its last 10 games. The Flames have two must-wins at Scotiabank Saddledome vs. Colorado and Dallas before they head out on a make-or-break five-game road trip. In only his second NHL season, center Sean Monahan (29 goals, 25 assists) is becoming a star at the age of 20.
17. Los Angeles Kings (34-23-14; last week-17) – A depressing 4-1 loss to the Canucks on Saturday isn’t exactly the way the Kings wanted to head out on a life-or-death five-game road trip. LA is so desperate to get back into the playoffs that they recalled exiled center Mike Richards who had been playing for their AHL club in Manchester, NH for the past two months. It is hard to picture a postseason without the defending champs but we have to come to the realization that it could happen in a few short weeks.
18. Boston Bruins (33-24-11; last week-13) – No other contending team has fallen apart more dramatically than the Bruins. Boston has lost its last five games and defenseman Dougie Hamilton is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. They get a couple days to regroup before they host two of the best teams in the league: Ducks on Thursday and Rangers on Saturday.
19. Colorado Avalanche (33-26-12; last week-not ranked) – The Avalanche are playing their best hockey of the season (7-2-1 in last 10 games) but unfortunately, unless they win pretty much every remaining game, they won’t make the playoffs in the stacked West. Colorado is six points behind Calgary with one game in hand. A win at Calgary on Monday is a must, plus they play Edmonton (twice) and Buffalo in the next week.
20. Florida Panthers (33-25-14; last week-20) – Florida is four points behind Boston but it helped its unlikely playoff campaign with a 2-1 shootout win over the Bruins on Saturday. Now, Florida hits the road for a five-game road trip against all Atlantic Division foes (four playoff teams). They do play Boston twice more, so if they win out, who knows what could happen?